Sunday, December 23, 2007

Jesuits and other heretics, part 1

I know, loaded headline- all to be read with a spark of subtly facetious cynicism. I mentioned the Jesuits before, and what perfect timing! These last few days I turned on my ears and deduced that it was "Degrade Things I Don't Understand" week with some folks around town. I shall elaborate. First, "The Golden Compass." Critics have been giving mixed reviews. After all what do we expect? Another fantasy film is bound to be a bit predictable. But I've not been hearing cinematic criticisms. I've been hearing content criticisms. The word on the street is that the movie is anti-Catholic. PAUSE. Now, it's terrible to profile but I do it anyway, so here it goes: the people living in the USA of 2007 who complain about the moral content of movies probably also subscribe to a broader reactionary ideology. So, let's go on a joyride with this premise. American Society always was and is an anti-Catholic social structure. Should it shock us that a purportedly anti-Catholic movie surfaces? Then again, this movie has British influences which makes perfect sense- we all know that those crazy, progressive Europeans are lost! But before we get lost there, let's back up. Philip Pullman, the author of His Dark Materials (the book on which the film was based), did not direct this film. Regardless of Pullman's beliefs or comments regarding the RC Church, Chris Weitz directed this film. Mr. Weitz found something he liked in the book but nevertheless intentionally departed from the book's more overt anti-Catholicism and was met with stiff criticism from censorship groups and Atheists. To think! People angry that the movie wasn't anti-Catholic enough! Anyway, Weitz and Pullman surely share some of the same convictions- that stuff about questioning unquestioned authority. Oh, but here comes the heresy: is this so bad? I don't think that even the most intellectually bankrupt Christian will argue that God gave us brains for no reason (then again, I suppose somebody will step up to bat on this one). Yeah, the Trinity and Mary's Perpetual Virginity are mysteries but many things aren't. Exercising mental discretion is a good thing, perhaps necessary. I don't suppose members of the Church hierarchy have ever abused power or betrayed trust. (Please don't read US newspapers from the last decade or any accurate history book). Ah yes, clergy can't screw up. No concupiscence there! This is probably true in any institution. Uh oh, here comes anecdotal evidence: I recently made a move in my Catholic Fraternity to establish some type of mechanism for systemic oversight. Inevitably the question came: "But do we really need this. I mean, we're a Catholic organization. Can't we trust each other?" Yep, it's true: human nature is subsumed by systems. Back to the movie... Nothing sounds more noble than Latin and in "The Golden Compass" villain is called the "Magisterium." As one fine young man recently put it, "The bad guys are called the Magisterium, I mean, literally, the Magisterium. Can they make it any more obvious?" The answer is "no," "no they can't- to me" (whoever "they" are, but that's neither here nor there). The connection is crystal clear to me- 14 years of Catholic school and some seminary; of course, I know that the Magisterium is the official "teaching authority of the Church." To the rest of the world, does this ring a bell? You know, magister means teacher, etymology..huh? I guess I'm not much for conspiracy theories. Let people speak for themselves if possible. Said Weitz regarding anti-Catholicism in his film: "If that's what you want in the film, you'll be disappointed." Heck, even Nicole Kidman pitched in her two cents, "the Catholic Church is part of my essence. I wouldn't be able to do this film if I thought it were at all anti-Catholic." Of course, we may still think what we like; we just can't maintain that these folks meant it that way- which is entirely the argument I've been hearing. Nope, "The Golden Compass" merely addresses thought control- and not even the most orthodox, right-thinking Catholics want the Church to be described that way. Indeed "In the books the Magisterium is a version of the Catholic Church gone wildly astray from its roots" (emphases mine). This comment from Weitz reminds me of what the beloved Bishop Fulton J. Sheen once said: "There are not more than 100 people in the world who truly hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they perceive to be the Catholic Church." Even if I'm wrong, even if Weitz was lying through his teeth, even if there was an organized plot with Pullman to undermine the Catholic Church in this movie, cui bono, to whose benefit? The Atheists? People aren't leaving Church in droves since the movie appeared. The Devil? We never know who's going down with that hell-raiser. Money? Money is supposedly the false-god that drives the film industry and yet this flick has been grossing a good deal less than expected. Bill Donohue and the Catholic Action League call for a boycott, a bunch of people stay away, fewer dollars come in, and guess what, Pullman wins the moral victory! Instead of engaging or at least ignoring "dangerous ideas" zealots took the bait, made a stink about it and validated the all the delicious irony that Pullman savored. Ultimately, I can't see how this movie is morally consequential. It tried out for the team, barely made the cut, and now sits on the bench with Harry Potter, bored as hell, watching child abuse, marital infidelity, and sexual exploitation play hardball. Frankly, I thought "The Golden Compass" was mostly about a little girl riding around on a Coca-Cola mascot in a Winter Wonderland- perfect for Christmas! If you don't believe the Weitz and Kidman quotes see them for yourself at the link below- but ultimately, don't let the facts get in the way.

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